Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Sci in our Fi, no. 3 — "Blind me with science" edition

Here's a timely follow-up to this post, and this one. I just created a new label/tag for this topic.

Regarding Steven Soderbergh's new biomedical thriller Contagion, it's Jovana J. Grbić's view that it lets scientific accuracy drag the plot's momentum. Ordinarily I'd raise a Spockish eyebrow at a movie review from Chemical & Engineering News, but Dr. Grbić is creative director of the Los Angeles-based ScriptPhD, which "specializes in science communication in entertainment, advertising, and media." ScriptPhd is therefore an enterprise I respect and encourage.

As a realistic depiction of a bird flu-type epidemic, "Contagion" attempts to right some of the scientific wrongs of the 1995 film "Outbreak," which played more like a conventional zombie movie than a warning parable about the global reach of modern infectious diseases. The scientific blunders in "Outbreak" include an unauthorized person walking out of a secured government lab with a sample of a deadly virus (without gloves, no less), scientists and civilians walking into a Biosafety Level 4 lab without proper personal protective equipment, and an unrealistic rate of viral spread.

"Contagion" manages to sidestep such scientific inaccuracies. If anything, it is a science film masquerading as a public service announcement to raise awareness about the possibility of such an outbreak and show that widespread panic can be more dangerous than the virus itself. That’s a lofty goal, to be sure, but too many minutes are invested in forcing actors to deliver technical language, along with clunky lines explaining their meaning. The balance between scientific accuracy and storytelling ultimately has to tip toward storytelling—the linchpin of all compelling films.

As regular visitors here know, I'm I big proponent of that last sentence — and you also know that a film that puts extra effort into getting the science (and the scientists) as accurate as possible gets extra appreciation from me. I haven't yet seen Contagion, but knowing that it "manages to sidestep such scientific inaccuracies" increases my likelihood of seeing it sooner rather than later, in a theater rather than weeks from now via Netflix. I wonder if Dr. Grbić is underestimating the tolerance and capacity of the average audience member, and I'm curious to see whether I'll feel that Contagion invests "too many minutes" in grounding the story in reality, or that it stretches my "emotional attention span too thin."

Over at NewScientist.com, Ferris Jabr expresses a differing reaction: Contagion's "exhilarating pace never sags, even in scenes that have the potential to bore people out of their minds." He adds that Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns "keep the viewer's attention as they explain statistics like the all-important R0 - the average number of people an infected person infects - and truths about the scientific process...."

Of course, a great deal depends on how well the actors sell the technical language, and we're talking Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Winslet by herself may whisper the CDC's Avian Flu page in my ear any time she chooses.

In any case, I expect to at least applaud the film's refreshing effort toward b.s. avoidance.

ScriptPhD's full article on Contagion expands on the Chemical & Engineering News piece, and includes a Q&A with Natasha K. Griffith, the film's technical biosafety consultant.

I've been itching for a good new Andromeda Strain for years now. Wait, maybe I should phrase that differently.